Post-MFA Book Review: Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career

Now that I have finished my M.F.A. in Screenwriting, I have been trying to take some time to think about my future and wrap my head around the many opportunities in the film industry. I had a wonderful experience in the graduate program. I emerged with a portfolio of work of which I am very proud. It was incredible to be surrounded by professors and classmates who are equally as passionate about writing. Despite all this, however, I feel that my knowledge of the ins and outs of the film industry, the “business side” if you will, is still lacking. To this end, I recently finished a book called Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career by Lee Zahavi Jessup.

I was very excited to receive this book, and I dove right in and took notes. I accompanied my reading with some great podcasts featuring Lee Jessup: the June 13, 2016 episode of the Creative Writing Career podcast, as well as Episode 340 of On the Page with Pilar Alessandra (from March 14, 2014). These really complemented my reading. (I have never fully explored podcasts, but now I am getting more into them.) In Getting It Write, I learned many new things about how to position myself to best make a go of a screenwriting career.

It was helpful to first identity what kind of writer you are. Jessup identifies many different types, including writers who are full of ideas but have trouble getting things down on the page, and writers who lack ideas but are superb when it comes to fulfilling assignments. I discovered that, in terms of a label, I am probably a “Reliable Content Creator” (Jessup 29). For this type of writer, the advice she gave was to keep doing whatever you’ve been doing that allows you to consistently create high-quality content. For me, that would be using a step-outline and then later copying and pasting it into Final Draft, which is a sort of psychological trick to make you feel like you have already written a lot. If my goal is to write a 60-page TV pilot and I already have a 15-page detailed step outline in Final Draft form, I feel like I’m already a quarter of the way there!

This book is full of encouraging pieces of advice; at the same time, Jessup does not talk down to the writer. She makes a distinction between those who only have one passion project and just want to “sell a movie” versus those who truly want to “craft a screenwriting career.” Her book is tailored to those who are serious about building a screenwriting career through hard work. I found her approach to be refreshing, and I actually felt empowered to keep pushing ahead as I try to forge a career.

This book was full of great advice, and I can’t possibly cover it all in one blog post (nor would I, as you should read the book to find out!). I found a few lines, however, to be particularly helpful, and thus have chosen to highlight several standout pieces of advice:

  1. “Your screenwriting career goals should be short-term objectives, ones that fall within your control…aspirations [are] desired results that you have little to no control over,” (Jessup 52). This was helpful advice because I’ll admit that I had been conflating the two. I thought that my goal was to find a manager, but it turns out that that is an aspiration, and that my goal for the next six months is really to polish the scripts that I have completed in the graduate program so that they will be totally ready to send to managers, as I have consistently heard that material must be “100% there” before you send anything out. You only have one shot to impress the people that matter. Of course it’s hard to figure out when material is “ready,” but I have received notes and feedback from my cohort and professors, as well as from the various competitions that I have entered, and so I feel prepared to take on the challenge of revising my material. I may not do it within the timeframe I’ve set, but I’m setting a goal, and that’s the first step to accomplishing it.
  2. Aspiring screenwriters should have “two polished similar-genre screenplays”; otherwise, a manager or other representation may not even consider taking them on. Similarly, aspiring television writers should have “at least one outstanding TV pilot, accompanied by a complete six-to-twelve episode bible,” (Jessup 66). While I have three similar-genre screenplays, as well as two similar-genre pilots, and so I feel good about this advice, this also reminded me that I have to write a bible for my thesis script, COLOR OF LAW.
  3. “Both representation and development executives are looking to build relationships with prolific brands,” (Jessup 131). There was quite a bit of discussion about building a “brand,” which I enjoy reading about because I’m trying to build my brand. This had been something that I had been thinking about for a while: as someone who works primarily in realist drama, am I pigeonholing myself by only doing that? Should I branch out into other avenues? I realized, however, that it is not a bad thing to have a niche, and that once you have a niche, you can always branch out later. So I’m satisfied that I made the right decision to continue on the path (genre-wise) that I have been going. Another aspect to this idea of a “brand” is social media presence, and I have recently expanded mine, and so I am excited to see where that takes me.
  4. “…[Y]ou build a screenwriting career on the strength of the brand, not the merit of one script,” and so you should start and finish a new script every six months (Jessup 140). This is both a discouraging and an empowering thought. On the one hand, we cannot rest on our laurels just because one script did well in completions, for example. On the other hand, it takes a little bit of the pressure off because, if you are always creating new material, there are always new opportunities to improve and make the next script even better!

Of course, I wish there would have been even more material included (166 pages is a little thin), and the use of a pun in the title belies the fact that this book pulls no punches, but overall, I found this book to be a very helpful read. I even found it fun to go through because the author is so encouraging and makes it sound like we, as writers, have the power to determine our future. Of course it is not a simple as that, and the machinations of the industry sometimes get in the way, but, with the right attitude and the right tools, we are one step closer to achieving our personal, artistic, and professional goals. I would recommend this book to anyone who is serious about pursuing a screenwriting or television writing career, but who is unsure of where to start. I hope that you get a lot out of this book and that you would emerge feel invigorated and empowered, just as I did.